Songs of the Gorilla Nation: a Book Review

Songs of the Gorilla NationSongs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ★★★★★

I found it almost impossible to review this book straight away, because there aspects of it I strongly dislike and aspects that I find very valuable.

I think it is an important book: It gives a great glimpse into one person’s reality of coming of age with undefined high functioning autism. Most importantly, it describes a strategy for overcoming autistic isolation. Not a cure but a way to kick start the positive feedback loop of social relationships that social learning requires in order to happen.

Dawn is a gifted writer, and the book has brilliant passages and good integrity. Its structure is meaningful, organised into 3 sections:

Part 1. Dawn’s childhood and youth history growing up with undiagnosed autism, knowing something is wrong with her socially, but unable to figure out what it is. She is severely bullied and drops out of school, becomes homeless and hungry, and later finds a way to make a living as an erotic dancer. The roots of her passion for primates is her childhood fascination with ancient humans; and that fascination runs through her life story as a sub-surface theme waiting to unfold.

Part 2: Dawn discovers the gorillas. She is lucky and gets a job in the zoo, and gets more and more involved with the gorilla family. They become her family, and she learns social skills by observing and interacting with them

Part 3: Dawn’s life post-zoo, with the social skills she learned from the gorillas. She establishes a family, works through relationship problems, discovers the name of her condition and gets a diagnosis, gets on meds, and makes her special interest into her study direction and career.

Out of the “autism memoirs” I have read, this is the one I relate strongest with on a personal level, it made a strong impression and very much came “under my skin”; so it was uncomfortable yet fascinating to read. Despite differences in personality, life style and sexual orientation (and my lack of fascination with gorillas), the core theme really strikes a note with me:

1. Youth as a time of stumbling through life randomly, frantically, alien, always aware something is terribly socially amiss yet not able to pinpoint the key error.

2. Learning social skills from animals as a turning point that creates a “before” and “after” social timeline.

Observing the social dynamics of the gorilla group and building relationships with them, gave Dawn the basic social infrastructure she needed to begin to make sense of human sociality and learn from that too – creating the crucial positive feedback loop she had been lacking, kick starting her social development.

 
My personal reflections

That is something I can relate to, because in my life, group dynamics began to make sense when I worked with pigs (for seven years), although that wasn’t a fixed group but many groups that were slowly replaced by new groups over time.

My first real close, trusting, stable, deep long term friendship was with my old dog. She passed away many years ago but I am still using some of her “tricks” – social attitudes and habits, in social interactions and relations with people; especially in my marriage.

Just like Dawn describes it with the gorillas, my bond with the dog was a safe base for learning social relationship skills and pick up attitudes I could use to connect with people – and then the relations with people gave social insights and enabled me to pick up more social insights and skills, which gave more social opportunities et.c. – the crucial positive social feedback loop gradually gained a foothold and developed its own permanent, positive inertia.

That is why the book is important. People rarely point this out, but social insights and habits required for interacting and relating with people can be learned from observing and relating with social animals, as an easier (or even just possible) starting point. Relationship skills are somewhat universal: the attitude and behaviours your dog uses to connect with you and build unique emotional bonds, is similar to what you need to connect and bond with people (in a modified version).

That’s the core point of what I want to say, but other aspects of the book hit home too – like the attachment to places more than to people, and the traumatic dislocation and alienation caused by moving from a childhood home, having one’s roots pulled up. And of course the passion for animals (although in my case not particularly primates).

As I said initially, there are also aspects of the book I found hard to bear and strongly distasteful. The worst is the sentimentalism and idealisation of the gorillas. I hate when Dawn calls the gorillas for “people”, and humans for “human people”. Essentially she insists on re-categorising gorillas as a type of ancient humans; and projects her special interest for ancient humanity onto the gorillas. I find that re-categorisation wrong on many levels, none of which denies that gorillas have personalities and social relations and social group dynamics, just like people do. However, so do many other animals… That makes them relatable, but not human. Dawn does explain why she tries to include the gorillas in humanity; I see her views but didn’t like to be force-fed them semantically.

That said, overall I think this is an important, strong, beautifully written book with strong integrity, and despite finding some aspects of it repulsive, I’ll absolute recommend it as a great source of insight and inspiration for social self-help.

I also appreciate very much that Dawn doesn’t generalise herself and try to speak on behalf of all autistics; she doesn’t “We” herself but emphasises that this is her version of it, and that it is both unique and overlaps with some others peoples’ experiences of living with autism, but not all.

View all my reviews

 

Dawn Prince-Hughes with a zoo gorilla family in the background
Dawn Prince-Hughes – Photo from Living on Earth.

 
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